Fiction 2013 / Volume 43

Be Better — Suzanne Richardson

I got out my trail map when I heard someone found Jimmy’s body. I had a feeling I knew where: the North Carolina/Tennessee border on the Appalachian Trail. Reports said he was shirtless, grey and rubbery, covered in leaves—in some ditch or depression in the earth. I thought about the men, the ones traveling with that young boy the summer we met, the summer we hiked not far from where they found him.

We were both twenty, both working at a boys hiking camp in the North Carolina mountains. Jimmy had curly red hair and wore jeans that were ripped to all hell, worn-out army jackets, and long sleeved shirts with holes in the armpits. Jimmy smelled pretty bad on account of the fact that he didn’t care much if he smelled or not. He played ukulele, and rolled thick joints that he smoked in the woods at night after the campers were asleep. He always offered me to join him with the phrase, “Charlie, You want that green?”

We smoked by the river. Once or twice he told me was very afraid of death, which was something I hadn’t thought about much at that age, but Jimmy thought about it a lot. Most infuriating to him was the idea that something becomes nothing. He didn’t want to disintegrate; he told me he didn’t want to disappear. He would punctuate our conversations by whipping off all his clothes and jumping into the ice-cold river screaming from the pain of it. He’d come up clutching his dick in one hand and raising the other into a fist to the night sky. I’d jump in too if I felt the need to clear the air. It helped to shock the seriousness of our conversations out of our bodies, out of our minds.

On our last hike of the season we met two men traveling with a young boy on the AT. This wasn’t unusual on the AT, we often had to share space with other hikers, but there was something different—something strange. When we rounded the bend there were two men sitting around the fire pit downing cans of beer and tossing them at their feet. Behind them, a boy, our campers’ age about ten or twelve in an Oriole’s t-shirt sitting cross-legged in the grass. The men didn’t let up on their drinking at all and when we finally sat down to share the fire they were friendly, but shifty. Only one guy spoke, while the other stayed silently looking on. The talker had a thick mustache, tan skin, dark hair. He looked about forty and offered Jimmy and I their “hiker names.”

“I’m 2Fast, and this is TrailPoindexter,” he touched his own chest, and the chest of his friend. 2Fast produced the hike book that was kept at the campsite.

“We’ve been signing all the way, since the gap too,” he tossed it at Jimmy. The gap was at least eighty miles away. Jimmy shot me a look and tossed me the book. We weren’t signing because we weren’t hiking long enough stretches. The books, we felt, were reserved for hardcore thru-hikers. We had plans to hike longer stretches together, without the campers, later, and then we’d sign.

“What about you? What’s your name? You like to hike?” Jimmy leaned around to the boy, and got body blocked by 2Fast who leaned between them.

“That’s my nephew, Billy. He’s just learning, by the end of this trip, we’ll have a name for him, won’t we Billy?” he turned to the boy who nodded slowly without speaking. When the sun went down, the boy refused the food we offered him, and when our campers tried to engage him, 2Fast brought a Rubik’s Cube out of his backpack and told us Billy preferred to play alone. The boy grabbed it and began turning, turning, turning.

Later, in the tent, Jimmy grabbed my collar.

“Something’s wrong with those men. They don’t have gear.”

“What do you mean?”

“They have school backpacks full of beer, they’re wearing sneakers, and they have only trash bags and blankets. They claimed they liked sleeping under the stars, but they couldn’t have come all that way, the way they claimed, with just that. 2Fast has a buck knife. I saw it. ”

In the dark of the tent we agreed to take shifts sleeping. Jimmy took the first shift, but never woke me for the second and in the morning they were gone—

I wondered if Jimmy had run into someone bad on the trail like those men. Someone bad enough to harm him, want him dead.

***

After camp Jimmy dropped out of school. I got a wild phone call where his voice quaked and I could hear the highway roaring behind him like an angry animal. He said he’d been walking for days from North Carolina to New York. He was coming to see me.

“Come on up, brother,” I said, but I could tell something was off. Something in his voice made me uneasy. Jimmy showed up days later stinking with only a backpack and a beast look in his eyes. He’d dyed his hair pitch-black too.

We headed to a whiskey bar below a cop precinct. We drank; watched the crowds bloom and recede. It felt like I was with Jimmy, but also with another man, a man I didn’t know as well who might have been coming undone. The things I loved in him were there throbbing, clear, but other things were rising to the surface, unfamiliar things. We shot Jim Beam and chugged cheap beer, and when the cops came down from the precinct Jimmy put songs on the Jukebox. A cop with a thick gold wedding band sat near us and kept leaning into Jimmy. I paid no attention until the Stones came on, “Wild Horses.” Jimmy went to the bathroom and was gone a long time. I drank two rounds without him before I went looking. I pushed on the bathroom door. Jimmy was on his knees while the cop with the thick gold band leaned against the sink, eyes closed slightly. There were flashes of flesh against the hard white walls, white sink. Jimmy looked up from blowing the cop, wiped the salvia from his mouth, and looked straight at me. I stumbled out of the bathroom and out the front door of the bar. The Stones kept playing and Jimmy didn’t come out to find me for a bit.

“Why’d you leave?” he smacked my shoulder.

“Why’d you do it like that, with a stranger, right there in that bar?” I flipped my jacket collar up. Jimmy looked down.

“Because I wanted to,” he said ducking back into the bar. I watched Jimmy with the bartender through the window; I got close and let the damp heat of my breath cover the window, cover him.

Jimmy got the cop to drive us all the way back to my dorm room on the upper west side. The cop put on the siren, stuck his right hand on Jimmy’s crotch in the passenger seat, and drove through light after light.

I heard Jimmy crying in the middle of the night. The heaving wetness of him in the dark.

“Jimmy, it doesn’t have to be like that.”

I should have told him I didn’t care, because I didn’t, but I didn’t understand why he did what he did. The way he showed me. The way he treated that cop, and the way that cop treated him. The Jimmy I knew was worth more, meant more to himself than that. Jimmy spoke, breaking the silence,

“Charlie, you’re the only person who knows.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, but there’s something else.”

“What else?”

“That kid from the trail, Billy, he’s still missing.”

***

After Jimmy died, I got a phone call in the middle of the night from Jimmy’s mom. It woke me from a black-brown deep sleep. The cops were saying probable suicide.

“Do you think my son killed himself?” She unloaded into the phone. It hadn’t occurred to me that Jimmy’s death could have been a suicide.

“No M’am, that’s just not Jimmy.” But when I hung the phone up I remembered the dorm room: You’re the only one who knows. I tried to imagine Jimmy killing himself. I tried to imagine the way he’d justify it to himself. That he couldn’t go on? Hated life? Felt like a fraud? Felt too much pain? None of it was Jimmy. But he did feel pain. I always told him pain was finite, that pain didn’t extend into infinity. But he would tell me he had long pain, pain that stretched out and doubled and connected and somewhere in there was that kid, Billy, and somewhere in there was him being gay.

We never talked about what happened in New York. We were focused on the trail. We were making plans to hike the whole thing when I graduated. We sent bundles of letters that read like code with strategies and P.O. boxes to send food and supplies to. We were training, walking with weights in our packs. During this time Jimmy would call my phone when he got drunk and talk about the missing boy. Once, he told me that Billy’s disappearance was an evil, a true evil, and that’s how he knew the devil was real. Once, he screamed that we might as well have killed him with our bare hands. Once, he said he was sure Billy had escaped. Once, he asked me why I never called him to talk about Billy. Somehow that question created more space between us than any question that came before.

“Why don’t you think about him?” He’d said.

“Why don’t you stop thinking about him?” I’d replied.

***

Jimmy and I never made it to the trail. The last letter I wrote Jimmy told him I was ditching our plan to hike the AT and moving up to Maine to work a crap job and get with a girl. I told him to come, we could work the Lobster boats, it’d be like old times. He got angry. We didn’t speak. Things with that girl eventually died, but I found my way here. I like it. I like living in a place that has seasonal money. I cash up all summer and bum through the winters. I always thought Jimmy would show up one day, but he never did. The trail ends here you know, or starts here, depending on how you look at it, not too far from where I am. I wish he’d told me he was hiking the trail, even part of it. I would have gone, I would have met him, could have found some way.

It was Jimmy’s sister who called with the final word. Her voice was shaky like some kind of bird or growing boy, low and then high at the saddest moments. She wanted me to come down and look at Jimmy’s things, see if I wanted any of this gear. She told me the funeral had been horrible, their mother climbing up and down the coffin. I’d heard through friends she was tranqued halfway through “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” His brother played an Arlo Guthrie song that obliterated everyone in the last few minutes of the ceremony and then cried so hard he tripped over his amplifier and just laid there sobbing.

“Well Julie, this is about as bad as it gets,” I told her. They’d determined the final cause of his death: hypothermia. Now how a skilled outdoorsman like Jimmy dies of hypothermia God only knew, but she described his stomach contents. Pills. Robitussin. He’d taken his shirt off because right before you die of hypothermia you get hot. He’d fallen, in his stupor, into a small hole up to his waist. This was probably why it took so long to find him. No one had hid him, he didn’t bury himself, he’d fallen.

I drove to the docks and threw rocks at the water until it got dark. I sat on the hood of my truck thinking of Jimmy’s final moments. Did he know he was dying? I replayed the witness statement from the papers in my head: There was a hand, then an arm leading into a circle of pines. The bare chest of a young man, long deceased. No signs of struggle. His other arm was across his chest, palm down. That last detail bothered me. I thought many times about Jimmy frantically searching for his own heartbeat with that hand before it stopped.

The truth: Jimmy got too fucked up. Nothing felt resolved and nothing made sense. The six-o-clock, eight-o-clock, and ten-o-clock ferries all came and went, and Jimmy was still dead for no good reason.

That morning I woke to the smell of smoke and climbed out of the tent to see Jimmy at the fire pit, sitting there like he’d been punched.

“What’s going on man? What is it?” I walked over rubbing my face.

“I fell asleep and they took off with the kid,” he didn’t look up. He was poking the fire blankly with a stick.

“We don’t know if it was bad for that kid, we don’t know it for sure.”

He dug the stick deep into the coals and dragged up a smoldering piece of fabric. I could make out the Baltimore Orioles logo on it. The shirt the boy had been wearing.

“They burned all the clothes they wore.” He threw the stick down. “We’re never gonna see that kid again, no one is going to ever see that kid again and it’s our fault. It’s our fucking fault.”

I knew what he meant. We could have done more. What we did wasn’t good enough, and we knew it right then, not later, but right then as we watched the fire smolder out about an hour too late.

As we hiked out, the kids tried to start a chain of silly camp songs but Jimmy shut it down. He told them to hike quietly, watch for wildlife; they pouted, kicked dirt up and down the trail. Jimmy took the rear with the slow kids and was especially patient with their yelps of pain. When we hit the gas station we saw it: a sign for a missing boy, a small sketch; last seen wearing an Orioles shirt, shorts, and white sneakers. Jimmy told me to buy ice cream sandwiches while he used the payphone. I knew he was calling the number on the flyer. His arms waved wildly inside the booth and he grabbed his hair, it was red then. A small camper slipped his hand in mine sensing something was wrong. His grip was sticky with ice cream but I let him. I could tell he was nervous about the shift in tone the hike had taken that morning. I winked at him—something my dad used to do. Jimmy walked towards us, his boots dragging on the pavement.

“We should have done better,” he’d said.

***

Jimmy died a mile away from that camping spot. They found his pack and tent four feet away from that same fire pit, the one where the boy’s clothes were burned. Jimmy couldn’t forgive himself for that moment. I don’t know if I’ll forgive myself. Twice now I’ve turned a blind eye, let things happen. Jimmy needed a friend—he should have had someone better, Billy too, and I don’t know if I will ever be better than I am now— and I need to be.

The spring after Jimmy’s death was ruled accidental, I hiked up to that spot with Jimmy’s gear. I set up camp the way he would have wanted, proper. As the sun went down over the ridge turning the mountains blue, I smoked a joint by myself and tried to ask for forgiveness; from Jimmy, from that boy, but all I heard was the wind in the pines. I touched the grass with my bare feet; I put a hat on when it got cold, and right when I thought it could all mean something—nothing came to me. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I made a fire.

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